NBA Playoffs (First Round)
#1 San Antonio Spurs VS #8 Utah Jazz (Regular Season: 3-1 Spurs)
Series Preview: For the second straight season the San Antonio Spurs have the top seed in the West and for the second straight season draw an opponent that could potentially give them problems.
For the Spurs the main goal in this series is to not have a repeat of last year’s playoffs where they got bounced out of the first round by the Memphis Grizzlies. Their main advantages in this series are their playoff experience and the matchup in the guard positions. Point guard Tony Parker is coming into this series after finishing the season as a dark horse MVP candidate in which he averages 18.3 points and 7.47 assists a game. Shooting guard Manu Ginobili continues to be the catalyst for the Spurs offense despite missing 32 games this season either by injury of rest. Another factor in favor of the Spurs is that they are better rested coming into the playoffs than last season.
For the Utah Jazz, this is a surprise playoff berth after seeming to be in a rebuilding mode. While looking as almost a certain lottery team throughout the season they had a furious 11-4 April stretch after starting the month at 27-26. After saying goodbye to the Deron Williams era last season they have built a new core around power forward Paul Milsap, forward/center Derrick Favors, center Al Jefferson, and shooting guard Gordon Hayward. Of these four Jefferson has emerged leading the team with 19.2 points and 9.6 rebounds a game. Point guard Devin Harris has had a bounce back year in which he averaged 11.3 points and 5 assists a game. The young Jazz front line of Jefferson, Milsap, and Favors may force the Spurs to insert center Tiago Splitter into the starting lineup.
Impact Player of the Series: Paul Milsap
They don’t call him Mr. Big Shot in Utah for nothing. Milsap has provided plenty of heroics for the Jazz on his way to averaging 16.6 points and 8.8 rebounds this season, both career highs. He needs to make his presence felt in this series to balance out the experience gap that the Spurs enjoy with center and future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan in their front line.
Prediction: Spurs win series 4-1
Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich learned the lesson of keeping his Big 3 rested in time for the playoffs after their surprise exit last year. The Spurs look ready to make what could possibly be Duncan’s last playoff run.
While the Jazz did win their last meeting, it was in a game where the Spurs Big 3 had the night off. The team in tough and show plenty of heart, but they are just too young and inexperienced to overtake a Spurs team with championship pedigree.
#2 Oklahoma City Thunder VS #7 Dallas Mavericks (Regular Season: 3-1 Thunder)
Series Preview: The Oklahoma City Thunder look to exorcise demons of playoff past in a rematch of last year’s Western Conference Finals against the defending World Champion Dallas Mavericks.
For the Thunder this is the first playoffs where they aren’t simply a good story. They are now a team with championship expectations. Small forward Kevin Durant finished the season winning the scoring title for the third year in a row. Durant averaged 28 points, 3.5 assists, and 8 rebounds, in a MVP-caliber season. Point guard Russell Westbrook is also coming a season with a career high 23.6 points average while having 5.5 assists a game, 1.3 below his career average. Power forward Serge Ibaka made his case for Defensive Player of the Year averaging 3.7 blocks a game and finishing with a season total of 241 blocks, 109 more than Denver Nuggets center JaVale McGee who came in second. Guard James Harden is having his best season coming off the bench averaging 16.8 points, 3.7 assists, and 4.1 rebounds per game, all career highs for Harden.
For the Mavericks it has been an up-&-down season as defending champions. In letting key pieces to their title winning team (center Tyson Chandler, point guard JJ Berea, and forward DeShawn Stevenson) leave in free agency the Mavs made a move to focus cap space for the future. Replacing these pieces with shooting guard Vince Carter, shooting guard Delonte West, and power forward Brendan Wright, while having good stretches, has produced inconsistent results. Power forward and franchise player Dirk Nowitzski had to carry the team on his back for much of the season while averaging 21.6 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 0.5 blocks per game, all below his career average. Point guard Jason Kidd is showing signs of age this season averaging 6.2 points, 5.5 assists, and 4.1 rebounds per game. This is also the first season in his career where he failed to average a triple double.
Impact Player of the Series: Russell Westbrook
Westbrook has the athleticism to lead the Thunder to victory on any given night. Unfortunately he also has the ability to shoot his team out of a game on any given night as well. The way that he approaches this series will dictate the flow of the series on both ends of the floor including a key matchup between Mavs small forward Shawn Marion and Durant.
Prediction: Thunder wins series 4-2
A lot has changed since their last playoff match; almost all of the changes have been in favor of the Thunder. Last year’s playoffs tested their mettle and now they the chance to prove why many analysts have them coming out of the West.
The Mavs on the other hand may be looking past this season already. In freeing up so much cap space they have possibly sacrificed hopes of repeating as champions to go after native Texan Deron Williams.
#3 Los Angeles Lakers VS #6 Denver Nuggets (Regular Season: 3-1 Lakers)
Season Preview: The Los Angeles Lakers, without Metta World Peace, looks to make a dark-horse title run against an athletic Denver Nuggets team looking to make their own surprise run.
For the Lakers it has been a season of changes. New head coach Mike Brown implementing his own offense, trading key player Lamar Odom to Dallas for a bag of magic beans, and even having their stranglehold on the LA fan base be legitimately challenged by the Clippers for the first time. One thing that hasn’t changed though is the production of shooting guard and franchise player Kobe Bryant. In a season where many expected for his body to show signs of fatigue Bryant has played to his career numbers averaging 27.9 points, 4.6 assists, and 5.4 rebounds per game. The twin towers of power forward Pau Gasol and center Andrew Bynum have also played well. Bynum in particular has had a career year averaging 18.7 points and 11.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game and finally starting to live up to the hype that made the Lakers draft him out of high school.
For the Nuggets, this is their first full season in the post-Carmelo Anthony era. They made changes to their roster in trading point guard Raymond Felton to Portland in exchange for point guard Andre Miller, trading for shooting guard Rudy Fernandez, and even trading center Nene to Washington in exchange for center JaVale McGee at the trade deadline. While all this was happening the team proved to be the highest scoring one in the league averaging 104.1 points per game. Small forward Danilo Gallinari, their main acquisition from trading Carmelo last season, has played well this season averaging 14.6 points, 2.7 assists, and 4.7 rebounds per game. Point guard Ty Lawson is having a career year averaging 16.4 points, 6.6 assists, and 3.7 rebounds per game. The big surprise though has been rookie forward Kenneth Faried. After not initially getting playing time at the start of the season Faried has played his way to the starting lineup averaging 10.2 points and 7.7 rebounds with an intensity that earned him the nickname ‘Manimal’ and made him a fan favorite.
Impact Player of the Series: Ty Lawson
The Nuggets put a lot of pressure on Lawson in giving him the keys to their offense after sending Chauncey Billups to New York as part of the Carmelo Anthony trade last season. He has lived up to their expectations. If Lawson can aggressively attack the basket he can help exploit the gap left by the suspension of Lakers forward Metta World Peace. Lawson can also use his playoff experience in his matchup with his Lakers counterpart Ramon Sessions.
Prediction: Lakers win series 4-2
The Lakers will miss the defense and production of World Peace. However with Bryant focused on tying his idol Michael Jordan along with the unique problems that Bynum and Gasol present it will prove to be too much.
This is where the Nuggets will miss Nene’s size in the middle. McGee is still trying to fully integrate himself to their offense. Couple that with the size he gives up to Bynum and the reluctance of head coach George Karl to use center Timofey Mozgov and the result will be a Lakers victory.
#4 Memphis Grizzlies VS #5 Los Angeles Clippers (Regular Season: 2-1 Clippers)
Series Preview: The Memphis Grizzlies look to prove last year’s playoff run was no fluke against a Los Angeles Clippers team looking to make their own run for the championship and for LA’s soul.
For the Grizzlies this season was one long test to prove that were as good as they looked in last year’s playoffs. That test proved longer when power forward Zach Randolph went down to injury. They held steady though thanks to having small forward Rudy Gay back in the lineup averaging 19 points, 2.3 assists, and 6.4 rebounds per game this season. Center Marc Gasol continued to improve his game averaging 14.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per game, earning him an All-Star spot ahead of his brother Pau. The late addition of point guard Gilbert Arenas proved to be a welcome addition to the team and helped stabilize the position for the team.
For the Clippers this is the first time that they have flirted with playoff and championship relevancy. The team had a young core built around power forward Blake Griffin, yet felt like other Clipper cores not meant to last. That changed the moment they traded for point guard Chris Paul and claimed shooting guard Chauncey Billups from the amnesty waiver wires. Those moves made them instant playoff contenders. Paul finished an MVP-type season averaging 19.8 points, 9.1 assists, and 3.8 rebounds per game. Griffin continued to posterize unsuspecting defenders while averaging 20.7 points, 10.9 rebounds, and 0.7 blocks per game. Small forward Caron Butler, a free agent signing, has had an up-&-down season coming off of knee surgery and has posted career lows.
Impact Player of the Series: Zach Randolph
If you saw his performance against the Orlando Magic in the regular season finale for the Grizzlies, you saw a man that feels he has something to prove. Randolph will need that intensity as he’s matched up against Griffin in this series. If he can contain Griffin and produce offensively in what looks like a close series that frees up Gay and Gasol to play inside.
Prediction: Grizzlies win series 4-3
This series is technically a toss-up, but the Grizzlies have home court and that may be what decides this. Now that they are at full strength with Randolph likely to return to the starting lineup the Grizzlies could out grind the Clippers.
Like I said before though, this series is technically a toss-up, so it would be no surprise if the Clippers pull it off. Paul almost beat the Lakers by himself last year with a New Orleans Hornets team that had far less talent than the Clippers.